TWILIGHT IN DAMASCUS - ASSAD FADING INTO SHADOWS

The failing health of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad has left the current status of frantic efforts to renew peace talks with Israel shrouded in mystery, and triggered an equally murky but desperate struggle over the line of succession in Damascus.

Since taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made peace with Syria a top priority. To coax Syria to rejoin negotiations over the Golan that broke off in 1996, he has heaped syrupy praise on Assad and sent a number of foreign emissaries his way. And although Barak is optimistic talks will resume "soon," nothing seems to be moving on the surface.

Some analysts attribute Assad's slow response to unspecified ailments and fears that Syria would be at a disadvantage in renewed talks if a sudden changing of the guard was required in Damascus. Western diplomats have noted that in their recent encounters with the Syrian strongman, Assad has appeared uncharacteristically sluggish and inattentive.

The apparent lethargy in the Syrian track has many anxiously suggesting Barak explore alternatives to American brokerage of talks. The lead US role was questioned further after Patrick Seale, Assad's unofficial biographer and mouthpiece to the West, claimed US President Bill Clinton sent a secret letter in June 1995 to Assad conveying, without authorization, the late Yitzhak Rabin's commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 line. Israeli leaders were quietly disturbed already with American mishandling of Rabin's hypothetical equation - the so-called "deposit" with former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher - but now Seale contends Clinton himself delivered in writing an offer never intended for Syria's direct knowledge.

The US State Department brushed aside the disclosures as "nothing new." But Seale bolstered his credibility by also providing highly detailed information on recent understandings forged between Israel and Syria, indicating his latest revelations were primed at the highest level in Damascus.

Indeed, there has been no lack of alternative intermediaries descending on the Syrian capital, including EU, French and Russian envoys, Jordan's King Abdullah II and even former South African President Nelson Mandela. And although a Lebanese paper reported Israel and Syria are now deep into discussions via a secret channel, and will resume talks within weeks - just as Barak has been predicting - it remains doubtful whether any of these discreet initiatives have made any headway.

The most obvious impediment is President Assad's preoccupation with a bloody battle for succession waged on behalf of his son, Bashar, against his exiled brother, Rifa'at. Western and Israeli sources confirm the ailing Hafez appears to be speeding up the transfer of power to Bashar, while directing a brutal campaign to suppress followers of Rifa'at, who wants to enthrone his own son, Sumer.

Living in Spain, Rifa'at was dismissed as vice president and expelled from the ruling Ba'ath Party last February, and "will be put on trial like any other outlaw if he returns to Syria," warned one Syrian Minister. The official also confirmed that two armed loyalists of Rifa'at were killed in a still-mysterious assault on his compound in Latakia, stronghold of the ruling Alawite family's minority sect. Syrian forces attacked the "illegal port" after Rifa'at allegedly refused to end large-scale smuggling operations there.

The Rifa'at clan owns several media outlets it is using to hit back at the current regime. They claim "Syrian authorities used a range of weapons, including poison gases" in a full-scale operation against the "small marina," leaving scores dead or wounded. Bashar apparently gave the orders to storm the facility, an action Sumer described as a "massacre." Sumer's television station dismissed the official "smuggling" charges, countering that his uncle's regime is itself the "master of smuggling and corruption." Rifa'at loyalists also issued a call to "the Arab masses" to recognize the Latakia attack as "a martyrs' day."

The latest campaign can be traced to Rifa'at assuming a more visible role in Arab affairs, including public visits to Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. He attended King Hassan's funeral in Rabat earlier this year, perhaps inducing his brother Hafez to stay away - to the consternation of Clinton and Barak. Sources close to Rifa'at contend Assad is determined to crush his sibling rival, who favors liberalizing Syria's economy and political structure and is "very open" to peace with Israel.

The national leadership of the ruling Ba'ath Party is expected to convene in the very near future, for the first time since 1985, to appoint Bashar - presently a mere colonel - to an official government position as the next step on his way to the top. Israeli leaders are not certain yet whether he would be a better or worse negotiating partner than his father.

With Assad pressed by domestic concerns, the Lebanese government showed a rare strain of independence when it solidly rebuffed the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad's bid to reopen a front against Israel via Lebanon. Syria evidently gave Islamic Jihad the green light for a resurgence in south Lebanon, a move meant to alert Jerusalem that a unilateral withdrawal from its security zone will not buy peace absent a surrender of the Golan. But the Lebanese remember well the destructive role Palestinian terrorist factions played in plunging the country into a sixteen-year civil war, and may have blind-sided their Syrian overlords with the firm response.

Barak has vowed to be out of Lebanon within eight months, but IDF commanders fear other "dormant organizations" will exploit the resulting security vacuum in the buffer zone if Syria is side-stepped. At a subdued induction ceremony for 47 new recruits, SLA Commander Gen. Antoine Lahad threatened to resign if he is tricked by a unilateral withdrawal, warning "my soldiers will take all sorts of steps" for which he is not prepared to bear responsibility.

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